Philly Opera's ‘Kumbaya’ Moment

‘Slaying the Dragon’ Tells Story of Klansman-Turned-Jew

Hooded Menace: Love and decency usually get short shrift when it comes to operatic treatments.
LAWRENCE HICKS
Hooded Menace: Love and decency usually get short shrift when it comes to operatic treatments.

By Raphael Mostel

Published July 03, 2012, issue of July 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

By chance I attended “Slaying the Dragon,” a new opera on the subject of violence and surprising redemption, on June 17, the same day that Rodney King died. King — the victim of a savage beating in 1991 by Los Angeles police (the video of which provoked one of the worst race riots in recent American history) — famously pleaded for reason and decency: “Can’t we all get along?”

Historical examples of hatred and love have long provided fodder for operatic treatment, though decency usually gets much shorter shrift. “Slaying the Dragon,” which is based on a true story from Kansas roughly contemporary with the Rodney King beating, concerns Larry Trapp, a Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon who renounced violence and converted to Judaism. The opera begins in the aftermath of the bombing of a local Asian Center and climaxes with the barely thwarted bombing of the local synagogue, with the rabbi delivering a considered and eloquent plea for reason and decency derived from the words of a different victim of violence and hatred, also named King.

In the sermon he penned while in jail during the 1957 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, also had its own similar history of hate, such as when, barely seven years prior to the aforementioned events, the city police themselves bombed a residential house, creating a fire that burned 11 people to death and destroyed 60 neighboring homes. Today Philadelphia seems to be a hotbed not of fires, but of new operas. Opera America, the national professional organization for opera companies and performers, held its annual conference there this year in June. Andrew Kurz, founder and musical director of Philadelphia’s enterprising 14-year-old Center City Opera Theater (CCOT), has for the past four years commissioned and premiered a new opera annually, and arranged for this year’s offering to coincide with the conference.

Riveted by the revelatory 2001 book “Not by the Sword: How a Cantor and His Family Transformed a Klansman,” by Kathryn Watterson, Kurz commissioned librettist (and former chief editor and CEO of the Jewish Publication Society, currently managing director of CCOT) Ellen Frankel to create a musical theater work based on the story, and Michael Ching, composer of four other operas (and former general and artistic director of Opera Memphis), to write the score. In a talk before the performance, Ching explained that even as a fourth-generation American of Chinese ancestry, as a young man he still encountered taunts of “Go back to where you came from!”

Creating an opera is a strangely alchemical process. How do the music and words lift the audience into another realm? When the subject matter is familiar history, it is an even more challenging task to incorporate period fashion, local vernacular and musical style. Nevertheless, the idea of operas ripped from the news headlines has a long tradition. Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” was about the assassination of the king of Sweden (although to get past the censors, the victim was changed to the governor of colonial-era Boston). Marc-Anthony Turnage has just had a major success with “Anna Nicole,” an opera about tabloid star Anna Nicole Smith. And my pick of last year, “Kommilitonen!” (“Young Blood!”) by Peter Maxwell Davies, wove together three historical protest movements: the anti-Nazi White Rose, James Meredith combating racism in Mississippi and the Cultural Revolution in China.

Inevitably, Frankel took artistic liberties with elements of the Kansas events, such as changing the names and transforming the cantor into a rabbi. Kurz conducted the score of “Slaying the Dragon,” written for 16-piece orchestra and 11 singers, plus adult and children’s choruses, with clarity and passion. But the music itself, though admirably structured and varied, is largely uninspired. It is mostly in a square 4/4 time signature, except when the subject of peace drives it into saccharine waltz 3/4 time, or when strife drives it into compound meters.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.